Advertising is big money. Agencies and media buyers spend exorbitant amounts of money putting products where customers can see them every year, and in the world of advertising, the car commercial is a standard.
Automakers have been advertising on TV for as long as there have been television ads. The first ads for automobiles appeared in the 1940s, but since then, advertisers have gotten a lot cleverer. Here are a few examples of the times when the industry got it right. These are our favorite car commercials ever.
Honda — The Cog
If the term “impossible to unsee” can have a positive connotation, this ad is it. Whether or not you know the story of Rube Goldberg, who made nonsense machines like this famous, you can’t help but be awestruck by what Honda built for this ad. It’s not computer animation, but it is the perfect tribute to one of the world’s most innovative automakers. It was also made entirely using parts from the latest Honda Accord at the time.
Audi — Ahab
This 2012 ad appeals to the literary drivers out there, channeling Herman Melville’s classic “Moby Dick,” only the white whale takes the form of an Audi sedan. Though we never learn his name, the salty wrecker driver who stars in the short clip gets the Ahab bit perfect, right down to his maniacal laugh. The ad doesn’t focus on any particular Audi model but instead emphasizes the brand’s legendary all-wheel drive system and some sharp-looking new headlights. And then there’s that cry at the end.
Volkswagen — The Force
As if you needed more reason to smile than a toddler marching around in Darth Vader’s digs, Volkswagen cleverly leveraged this irresistible trope to sell their latest Passat during Super Bowl XLV. At first, crushed by his inability to effectively levitate the family dog or open a dryer using force powers, our hero’s confidence is restored when — upon arriving home in a new Passat — dad cleverly starts the car from indoors.
Nissan — Dream
When you hire a man who makes full-length sci-fi movies for a living to do your car commercial, you should expect it to be good. Ridley Scott is just such a man, and the star of his 1991 Super Bowl commercial for Nissan’s Corvette-killer — the 300ZX Twin Turbo — takes us to a dystopian future where an anonymous hero is on the lam from…something. They have racecars, they have fighter planes, but they never planned on a 90s-era late-game boost.
BMW — Star
Speaking of full-length films, BMW commissioned eight actual short films in an artful campaign to promote its cars and deliver some real entertainment in the process. The movies star British badass Clive Owen driving the wheels off of all sorts of Bavarian loveliness. For the series’ “pièce de résistance” Owen and the legendary E39 M5 are charged with the protection of another legend, Madonna herself.
Audi — Old Luxury
Audi wasn’t finished borrowing from classics with “Ahab.” In this equal-parts awkward and incredible ad for the soul-stirring R8 super-sports car, the four-ringed brand chose to channel Mario Puzo and Martin Scorsese. Of course, we’re talking about The Godfather — specifically the horse head scene, which sets up the car’s departure, having decapitated what appears to have been a Bentley or older Jag.
Nissan — Toys
It’s no wonder the 300ZX has such a strong following in Japanese car culture — Nissan’s ad agency was on a role in the 90s. For this the second 300ZX ad on our list, we get another cinematically-inspired sequence, but this time the actors are plastic, not flesh-and-blood. Our star appears to be a GI-Joe-like action figure, and he’s looking for love in a bright red 300 with — wait for it — T tops! Queue a broadslide into the driveway to pick up one bedazzled, quick-changing belle. Who wouldn’t want this car?
Chrysler — Cordoba
Putting this ad on TV today might result in a lawsuit over racist advertising. But today is not the 1970s, and — at least for those who can appreciate automotive nostalgia — it’s a good thing, because nothing can compare to Ricardo Montalban’s endorsement of “rich Corinthian leather!” By the way, you can go ahead and look up the location of Corinthia. No really, we’ll wait…
Volkswagen — This is the Man
If it feels like you’ve seen this one before, it’s probably because this trope has been recycled in a few parodies of the VW original. It’s not overcomplicated, which is the whole point. Take one handsome 80s guy, give him a sympathy-evoking regular guy backstory, add a well-fitted suit and — oh, what’s that he drives? Of course, it’s a Volkswagen GTI — fun, not too posh and utterly reliable. This is the man you want to be, isn’t it, guys?
Chevrolet — Like a Rock
There have been multiple commercials in this series, as the “Like a Rock” theme stuck with Chevy pretty much indefinitely. The first-ever ad to feature the Bob Seger tune is the one that channels Chevy machismo best. If you can’t lift yourself up on a chain, break your truck by dropping an enormous pallet of construction material into it from way too high up or look cool while nonchalantly laying on the hood of your truck for a rest, as one does, what’s the point?
Porsche — Valet
Sir Patrick Stewart has been a longtime champion for Porsche, and in this ad, the former Star Trek captain lends his buttery-smooth voice to the story of two 993 cars, one destined for a life of racing and its twin purchased for personal use. To the horror of every sports car owner on the planet, the personal-use car goes on holiday with the valet guys, who check to make sure its racing pedigree is still intact.
Auto Ad Inspiration
Maybe you own one of the cars from these ads, and this piece has helped you reconnect with your automotive passion. Perhaps you’re inspired to go out and buy a 1984 GTI and a suit now.
What do you think are the best car ads of all time? Tell us in the comments below.